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What Is A Bicycle Tracker (And Do I Need One)?

Bicycle tracker secret squirrel

Secret squirrel won’t reveal the location of his nuts

Tracking systems have been around for cars and motorbikes for years.

With cycling growing in popularity, and with what feels like a greater number of more expensive bikes on the roads, tracking systems for bikes has to be a growth area.

Never let it be said that the Grimpeur doesn’t like to investigate interesting growths.

Today’s post is going to look at how bike tracking works and at the systems that are available for cyclists now and in the near future.

This is bleeding edge, blue sky, hi tech stuff, so strap on your Google glasses and join me on silicon bike lane.

What Is A Bike Tracking System?

Essentially a bike tracker is a device that you attach to the cycle which, when activated, transmits a signal revealing its location. So, when a bike is stolen and taken to a dark East London lockup, the owner can see where it is on a map and send in the heavies.

[In my imagination, I live in 1960s gangland London.]

In practice, bike tracking systems (like those for cars and motorbikes) generally use GPS and mobile phone technology to determine the position of the transmitter and (hopefully, if it’s still attached) the bike. The GPS co-ordinates are then plotted onto a map (either on a smartphone or in your computer’s web browser).

The description in the first paragraph of this section is quite broad because I’ve discovered that not every tracking approach uses GPS/cell phone triangulation, as you’ll see below (ooh, the suspense….).

Will Bike Tracking Catch On?

I’m going to court controversy here (not really) by saying, “Yes, Andrew, bike tracking will catch on”.

My entirely non-quantative study of British cycling habits reports that more and more affluent people are buying expensive bikes. Such people will want to protect their pride and joy using whatever means available.

Once you’ve insured it and fitted A-team-style booby traps to your shed, having a tracking device will provide belt-and-braces protection.

I don’t think bike insurance companies reduce premiums for tracker-fitted bikes right now (correct me if I’m wrong), but presumably this will come if it can be shown to reduce the insurer’s own liabilities (because returning a recovered bike is cheaper than shelling out for a new one).

The main challenge I see to bike trackers catching on is that despite my Ronnie Kray aspirations (!), I really don’t fancy confronting a thief to get my bike back. Assuming most people share my trepidation, we’d need to see the police being prepared to use the information and perform the recovery. Otherwise a bike tracker is just a frustrating tool for getting to watch another person enjoy using your bike.

What Bike Tracking Systems Are Available?

Here are three options that are currently available, or soon will be.

Spybike

Spybike is a GPS device that is secreted covertly on the bike so that the thief doesn’t realise that they’re being tracked. This is achieved by having the transmitter disguise itself as something you’d normally expect to be on the bike.

Currently they have secret squirrel head set top caps and rear bike lights (i.e. the transmitter is within the functioning rear light); a seat post version is coming soon.

The trackers cost £110–120, in addition to which, you need to buy a SIM card (they recommend getting a cheap Pay-As-You-Go one).

Once you’ve locked your bike up, you wave a dongle at the tracker to activate it. If the bike is then moved, you get a text message telling you that the tracking has been activated.

Have a shufti on the Spybike website, but my initial reaction is that the head set top cap version looks to be the most secure. Both the rear light and the seat post are secured to the bike frame using security screws but still could be a target for thieves in themselves. The device located in the headset is less likely to be suspected as a tracker and won’t be separated from the rest of the bike.

BikeSpike

BikeSpike is a tracking product that has other features beyond telling you that your steed is on the move without your consent.

It’s a similar idea to the Spybike stuff. The transmitter attaches discreetly to your frame on the bottle cage mounts, sitting within (and disguised by) a purpose-designed bottle cage.

The fitting is done with security screws and a ‘special tool’ so is not easily removed by the casual thief (although I imagine it’s quite straightforward to remove if the thief has said tool).

In addition to GPS/cell phone tracking, the device contains an accelerometer which can tell if your locked bike has fallen over or someone has ‘jostled’ it too aggressively.

As well as bike security, the BikeSpike also provides ride statistics and data logging akin to that provided by your Garmin bike computer (other computers are available…). Garmin’s livetracking feature on the Edge 510 and 810 allows family members (or your Directeur Sportif) to follow your route in realtime. The BikeSpike takes it one step further by being able to detect crashes (presumably via the accelerometer) and ‘alert loved ones’ (I assume it can tell people you don’t love as well).

BikeSpike is a bit cooler than the Spybike (i.e. in the hipster sense). This is evidenced by the lack of a space between ‘Bike’ and ‘Spike’. Also by the fact that it’s first round of sales came from a Kickstarter campaign (raising $150,000 in 26 days).

It seems you can’t actually buy the BikeSpike right now (October 2013). Instead you can reserve one, for shipping at the end of 2013/start of 2014.

The cost is $129 for the unit and the plastic bottle cage. Despite the USD price, it works in the EU, US, Australia and Japan. When you activate the BikeSpike, you have to sign up for a monthly data plan, costing either $4.99 (€4.99) / month for the ‘Commuter’ version or $6.99 (€6.99) for the ‘Pro’ (the main differences being that the ‘Pro’ version has a spectator mode and ‘live’ tracking, as opposed to ‘active’ tracking – no, me neither).

Tile

I might be about to revolutionise your life.

So, Tile(s) are these little plastic tags that you can attach to anything you don’t want to lose. They transmit a signal which can be picked up by your smartphone (well, a particular type of smartphone) to tell you if you’re getting warmer or colder as you move around. They also make a sound so that you can use a more lo-fi set of sensors (your ears…).

Tile is not a bicycle-specific product. In fact it’s not a particularly helpful product for bikes right now, although it might be in the future. Here’s why.

The range on an individual Tile is not large at all – something like 50 – 150 feet. The Tile itself doesn’t have a GPS transmitter (or whatever, I’m not technical…). Instead it communicates with your phone via Bluetooth 4.0 – hence it only works with newer generation iPhones and iPads currently. Not hugely helpful unless your bike thief happens to be your next door neighbour.

Where it gets clever is that Tile is community-based geolocation system (or aims to become one). If your Tile is within range of the (i)phone of another Tile user, the system will be able to notify you of its location. So whilst you might be miles away, if another Tile user walks past Reggie Bikethief’s East London lockup containing your bike with the Tile still attached, a pin will appear on a map and you can call in the fuzz.

Right now, you’ve got to imagine that Tile is more suited to people that misplace their wallet or glasses around the house rather than bike owners wanting to track stolen cycles.

The Tile community is limited to the small subset of the population that own an iPhone 4S or newer (it doesn’t work with Android due to lack of Bluetooth 4.0 support). This is going to restrict its coverage outside of a few iOS hotspots (ironically, hipster East London is probably one of them).

Still it’s an interesting idea and one I’d like to see succeed (I’m sure it will – they’ve already pre-sold $2.6mn of Tiles, before it’s even been released).

Conclusion

There are three potential options for tracking, and hopefully recovering, your two-wheeled pride and joy should some snivelling tea leaf attempt to pinch it.

It feels like it is early days in this ‘space’ – two of the three products are only in pre-production (albeit having already made substantial sales) – but cyclists are becoming increasingly accustomed to using phones and bike computers to track their movements whilst on the bike. It’ll only take time and maybe a bit more refining of the products before we start to track our bikes when we’re not riding them.

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Photo Credit: peasap via Compfight cc

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{ 3 comments… add one }
  • La Lanterne Rouge says:

    Interesting blog. Wouldn’t the best place to put one of these devices be inside the frame somewhere?

  • flysplat says:

    Datatag for bikes has been around for years with a chip in the frame and visible stickers.

    All very good if the local constabulary find the bike as it doesn’t transmit a signal.

    My image with all of these devices is that the old bill wont be quick enough and if the thief strips the bike you’ll get just your frame back….. Oh and your tracker of course.

    • Yep, that’s the concern. In the case of SpyBike tracker that is fitted within the bike light, I’d feel very confident about retrieving my light, less so about what it was attached to…

  • La Lanterne Rouge October 3, 2013, 8:54 pm

    Interesting blog. Wouldn’t the best place to put one of these devices be inside the frame somewhere?

  • flysplat October 4, 2013, 9:12 am

    Datatag for bikes has been around for years with a chip in the frame and visible stickers.

    All very good if the local constabulary find the bike as it doesn’t transmit a signal.

    My image with all of these devices is that the old bill wont be quick enough and if the thief strips the bike you’ll get just your frame back….. Oh and your tracker of course.

    • Andrew Montgomery October 8, 2013, 4:42 pm

      Yep, that’s the concern. In the case of SpyBike tracker that is fitted within the bike light, I’d feel very confident about retrieving my light, less so about what it was attached to…

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